We’ve come a long way from the days of Edward Jenner and the development of the first vaccine against smallpox in 1796. Since then, the health of individuals around the world has been transformed by vaccines—dangerous diseases have been eradicated and millions of serious illnesses have been prevented. Long before the availability of current vaccines, communities in India and China practiced a procedure known as inoculation or “variolation” (named for variola, the smallpox virus) in which material from an infected patient (like a smallpox scab) was rubbed into the skin of a healthy person. As a result of the procedure, patients would sometimes develop a mild form of the disease but ultimately developed immunity to the specific infection. In 1718, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the wife of a British ambassador, brought the procedure to Europe, where she conducted experiments, including on her own children, to prove the method was effective. Her experiments proved successful, and variolation became a common medical practice. However, variolation would sometimes fail to produce immunity, or worse, kill the patient.
Beginning in 1760, British scientist Edward Jenner began experimenting with material from cowpox, an infectious disease that primarily affected cows but could also produce a mild disease in humans. Cowpox was first observed in milkmaids since they had prolonged exposure to infected cows. Jenner observed that these milkmaids had developed natural immunity to smallpox, so in 1796, he inoculated an eight-year-old boy named James Phipps with material from a cowpox patient. Jenner observed that when Phipps was exposed to smallpox material, he did not develop the disease. By 1798, Jenner had turned these findings into the first-ever “vaccine” (named for Variolae vaccinae or smallpox of the cow). Less than two hundred years later, in 1979, smallpox—a disease that had killed an estimated 300 million people in the 20th century alone—was declared as the first disease eradicated due to successful vaccination programs.
The history of the smallpox vaccine is only the beginning of the story of how vaccines have transformed global public health. Indeed, vaccines are among the most significant achievements in public health. Between 1924-2013, childhood vaccinations prevented more than 100 million cases of serious diseases.
NFID has developed a #ShotOfScience campaign to share tools and resources on the history and science of vaccines. Campaign materials include sample social media posts, graphics, and a timeline infographic. We encourage you to participate in the campaign to promote greater understanding about the science, safety, and efficacy of vaccines. Get involved by taking these 4 easy steps:
- Share this blog post
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For additional information, visit www.nfid.org/vaccine-science.